Red Bull Timelaps: the highs, hills and hypothermia
Jess Morgan tells us about the non-stop, round-the-clock race that pushes her body, team and bike to their limits. Introducing Red Bull Timelaps…
Red Bull Timelaps takes place each year on the weekend when the clocks go back, with riders competing to rack up the most laps of a circuit in Windsor Great Park between noon on one day and noon the next. This means that despite riding between 12pm on Saturday and 11:59am on the Sunday, that ‘extra’ hour means the race lasts 25 hours in total. To add to the challenge, one rider from each team must be on the course for all of that time. Ouch!
Over to Jess…
My team and I began our Timelaps experience with a mix of trepidation and naive optimism. On the one hand, the idea of a 25-hour race in the middle of autumn is enough to turn the stomach of anyone with a shred of common sense. On the other, we were excited to ride together as a team and share the load. Six and a bit hours each couldn’t be too bad, right? Right? We had tents, sleeping bags and lots of food. What could possibly go wrong?
Each of the 190 teams in the race was comprised of four riders. Our North London ThunderCat Black Metal Bicycle Club (NLTCBMBC for short!) team was all female and made up of: Jo, our fastest racer, who is equally badass on track, grasstrack, fixed crits and road; Caz, who has been racing fixed crits and track since 2016; Lina, our newest recruit who seemingly can’t stop riding bikes no matter what the weather; and me, a lunatic willing to take on any race just for the fun of it.
Thick frost coated the ground as we rolled up to Windsor Great Park and the realisation that we were stranded in the countryside for 36 hours when temperatures weren’t even going to scrape double digits began to sink in.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip 1:
Pack ALL the layers and many, many other things to keep you warm (gazebo, blankets, sleeping bags). If you want to be really smug, bring fleece lined boots.
Clocking the competition
Nearly 800 friendly riders milled around the race camp, and there was a good mix of people, with 18 female teams, 42 mixed teams and 131 women taking part in total. The site itself consisted of 190 neatly-sized ‘pits’ centred around a huge communal marquee, which boasted gas heaters and hot water urns. This became a welcome sanctuary when the cold got too much.
After signing on, our two (one all-female, one all-male) teams set up a borrowed gazebo in the pits and discussed strategies. We are a multidisciplinary team, but more used to fast and furious crit and track races, so this was a new format for us. Advice from Timelaps veterans was that hour-long stints were enough to keep average speed high and give others time to recover.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip 2:
Save your strongest rider for the ‘power hour’ at 2am, when a smaller course opens up and laps count as double.
And we’re offffff
As the midday start approached, we sent Caz out first to get us off to a good start. She briefly secured us first place in the female team standings, before some of the strong teams like Team Specialized Wmn started laying down some fast lap times and edged into the lead. This was the fun part of the race. The sun was out. Everyone was still feeling fresh and energised.
I spent the first few hours swanning around the pits and chatting to fellow racers, roaring encouragement to teammates as they passed on the course and checking the big TVs as the leaderboards constantly refreshed.
When it was my turn to ride, I enjoyed a trouble-free first hour. We’d been supplied with some cold weather essentials by Altura especially for the weekend, including cosy thermal jerseys and gloves, so I was comfortable and warm despite the headwind on the exposed parts of the undulating 6.5km course. I even surprised myself by bagging our team’s fastest lap after jumping in with a speedy group.
During these early dry hours things looked very positive, with our first four stints earning us fifth place in the female rankings. But, this is a 25-hour race, not a four-hour race…
Red Bull Timelaps Tip 3:
Create a post-ride routine so you don’t have to think too hard after each stint. Prepare a change of clothing to get out of wet or sweaty kit as soon as you get off the course, and have what you need to rehydrate and refuel close to hand.
Our second rotation went without a hitch and I was lucky to follow some fast wheels again for most of my laps, keeping pressure on the team sitting in fourth.
When the rain began to fall and the winter sun faded, our exuberant mood started to peter away with it. Mild hysteria spread throughout the camp, as fatigue from the repeated full gas efforts started to take its toll and cracks began to show.
In our team, Lina and Jo had been unable to join any groups on their last stints and were feeling disappointed with their lap times, while Caz had been unlucky enough to catch the worst of the rain. With no hot shower to jump into or warm space to raise her body temperature she couldn’t recover properly. During her third ride on the now dark and relentlessly undulating course she started to suffer badly and returned having got caught in icy rain again – now on the verge of hypothermia, unable to get warm and too nauseous to eat.
Taking one for the team
To give her and everyone a bit more time to recover, I decided I’d do some extra laps on my third go. I was buoyed by my previous good performance and hoped my fantastic wheelsucking abilities (honestly, it’s my only skill) would keep the momentum up. During the second lap, I tried to jump onto the wheel of a faster rider but he distanced me. I furiously shifted down, trying to close the gap. Nearly at my last gear, I nudged the shifter paddle to the left, and it kept going. And going. Until it was sticking out of my bars at a freakish angle like a broken bone. And wouldn’t go back. CLUNK. I was in my very highest gear. And I was now at the bottom of a climb.
I rarely panic, but this was a moment of unadulterated alarm. As if cycling through treacle, I grappled up the hill frantically poking the malfunctioning shifter, trying to keep my legs moving and simultaneously process what this disaster meant for the race. Then I remembered that I had the little ring, so thankfully was able to gear down and cross-chain my way slowly through the course.
“My right shifter has broken and I can’t change gear – I’m coming off and someone needs to cover me!!” I howled down the phone at Caz.
To the credit of her and the team, Lina was ready to take over within minutes. I sprinted to the mechanic’s stand. He immediately declared it unfixable, the metal of the lever itself had sheared away.
My heart sank. The course was too lumpy to survive in a fast group with such limited gearing, I’d only be able to manage slow and painful solo laps. My chances of being competitive had disappeared quicker than you can say, “Should have used eTap”.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip 4:
Take a spare team bike that fits all your riders if you can. You never know when you might need it.
I ran back to the pits with the bad news. We had a team meeting and reviewed the not-so-cheerful facts: my bike was unusable and Caz was too sick to ride. At this point, Jo and Lina showed amazing determination and grit in wanting to continue as long as they could and decided to ride on until the power hour was over. Beyond that we knew it was impossible for two riders to do the final 10 hours back to back, so decided to grab some decent kip through the wee hours and make a new plan in the morning. At 1am I curled up in my sleeping bag, awash with guilt about letting the team down.
BEEP. I woke up at 7am feeling… well, rested isn’t exactly the word, but less drained than before, and immediately realised that I had to ride again, even if only with two gears. Checking the female team standings we’d slipped from 5th to 17th overnight, but still weren’t dead last. If we continued riding we could limit our loss. I then received a generous message from Canyon, who had seen the Instagram post about my mechanical. They offered to lend me a bike tiny enough for me to ride. Thank you Canyon!
All about the team
Now with three riders on fully functioning bikes we jumped straight back into it and did our best for the final hours. We knew we wouldn’t get back to where we were before, but it felt important to finish the race with a bang.
Doing one last session and totally emptying myself made it feel like it hadn’t all been in vain, and running up to Lina to hang the finishers medal around her neck when the race finished at noon made me realise that although everything didn’t work out for us, I was so proud to have ridden with these women and dealt with the challenges together. Their strength and determination was incredibly inspiring. We certainly have unfinished business and will be back at Red Bull Timelaps next year, but this time we’ll be better prepared and hopefully have better luck.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip 5:
It’s all about having fun with your team. Stick together and support each other and you’ll have a positive experience no matter what.
Find out more and tee up your own team in prep for next year here